Extremist Muslims Suspected
Prominent Christian murdered in Gaza

.- The small Christian community in the Gaza Strip has been shocked and frightened by the murder of a prominent Palestinian Christian, the Associated Press reports.

Rami Khader Ayyad, 32, was found dead with a gunshot wound in his head and numerous stab wounds in his body.  Ayyad was the director of Gaza's only Christian bookstore and had been the target of death threats and an arson attack.  The threats accused him of conducting missionary work, a rare activity for Gaza's Christians.

He leaves behind two children and his pregnant wife.

On Friday, Ayyad reported that he was being followed by a car with no license plates.  He called his family Saturday afternoon to tell them he had been abducted but would be freed later in the evening.  Police were notified, but his body was found the next morning.

Reaction to his death focused on Ayyad's deep faith.

"He paid his life for his faith, for his dignity, and the dignity of the Bible and Jesus Christ," said Issa, a 24-year-old Christian who came to pay his respects at Ayyad's home. "I am terrified and cannot believe this has happened in Gaza," said Issa, declining to give his last name because of the tense atmosphere.

"We feel Rami was killed for his Christian faith," said Simon Azazian, a spokesman at the Palestinian Bible Society's head office in Jerusalem.  Ayyad's bookstore was associated with the Bible Society, a Protestant group.

Vatican Radio reports that the director of the Holy See's press office, Father Frederico Lombardi, SJ, condemned the event:  "The murder of a member of the Baptist Christian community in Gaza is terrible news, and if suspicions are true the incident may be one of grave religious intolerance on the part of Muslim extremists."

Others avoided making accusations.   Hussam Tawil, a Palestinian lawmaker who represents Gaza's Christians, said "It's too early to talk about the motive of this crime, which might be dangerous."

Hamas, which in June took control of the Gaza Strip from the secular Fatah movement, is not above suspicion in the violence.  It has vehemently denied involvement.

Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Gaza's Hamas government, expressed "great sadness" over Ayyad's death and said he ordered an investigation.  He also voiced support for peace: "I stress the strong relations between Christians and Muslims in the Palestinian arena," he said. "We are part of the same nation ... and we are not going to allow anyone to sabotage this historical relationship."

After such violence many Gaza Christians may try to leave their homeland.  There are 3,200 Christians living in Gaza among its 1.4 million Muslims.

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